Saint Sebastian, Martyred 287 A.D.
As with most early saints, not much is known about Sebastian's life beyond his miracles and subsequent martyrdom. Nevertheless, there is a wealth of description of these events, though only the fact he died for his faith is certainly true, and from them certain assumptions about his early life can be made.
By tradition, he was born in Narbonne, Gaul to a wealthy family who sent him to be educated in Milan. At some point during his education the young Sebastian converted to Christianity. The exact details of his conversion are unknown, however, given that at this time the punishments for being of this faith were often tantamount to being tortured to death, his very acceptance of the religion suggests a degree bravery or possibly teenage foolhardiness. According to his legend, Sebastian was by nature a pacifist, however, he was also a talented athlete and, when he heard of the suffering Christians were facing at the hands of the Romans, in about 283 decided to join the army so that he might, if not save their lives, at least comfort them in their martyrdom without causing too much suspicion.
Some time after entering the army he was drafted to the Emperor Diocletian's personal bodyguards, the elite "equites Praetoriani" and attained the rank of stratopedarches; Captain of the Guard. Sebastian is always portrayed as a patriotic Roman, despite his subversive faith, and so it is not surprising that whilst serving as an imperial protector he became one of the Emperor's favourites. Some revisionist scholars suggest that Sebastian and Diocletian may have had a homosexual relationship at this time, but there is no evidence for this and were it brought up, it is fairly certain that the Catholic Church would deny any such goings on.
Conversions in the Prison
In 286, whilst serving the Emperor, Sebastian was ordered to guard a cell in which more than twenty prisoners were awaiting their fate. Two of the inmates named Marcus and Marcellianus had been accused of Christianity and sentenced to death. Swayed by the pleas of their friends, the two were discussing recanting their faith when Sebastian overheard them. Overcome with a "holy fire" he stood beneath the prison window which was set in the roof, and with the sunlight glinting off his tribune's armour, began preaching to the cell, espousing the virtues of Jesus and explaining that their martyrdom would surely guarantee them a place in heaven.
According to the story, the speech was so passionate that not only did Marcus and Marcellianus re-affirm their Christianity, but the entire population of the cell was converted, including their parents and the jailer; Claudius. In addition to this mass conversion, Zoë, the wife of Nicostratus, the master of the rolls and the man in charge of the prisoners, found that after Sebastian made the sign of the cross over her mouth she was able to speak for the first time in six years. Seeing this, Nicostratus helped the Christians escape to his house. Once there, a priest named Polycarp was summoned to baptise the converts. This done, it was discovered to his amazement that Tranquillinus, the father of Marcus and Marcellianus, no longer suffered from gout!
Days passed. By a coincidence, Chromatius, the governor of Rome was also afflicted with the same illness. Hearing of this miracle, he sent for Sebastian who baptised him and his son Tiburtius. Cured of his gout, he released the prisoners, made his slaves free and resigned his prefectship as a display of grattitude. Unaware of his conversion, the Emperor , allowed Chromatius to take his retirement in Campiana where he took many of the new converts with him. Aware that at least one of them should accompany the erstwhile prisoners, and one should remain in Rome to continue the good work, Sebastian and Polycarp argued; each of them desired to remain in Rome and face martyrdom. Unable to come to an agreement, Sebastian and Polycarp went to Pope Caius who, having listened to their story, decided that it would be for the better if Sebastian were to stay; he was more suited to the mission of comforting prisoners and converting citizens, whereas Polycarp would be of more service as a priest to the new converts.
Death and Miracles
Sebastian, the pope and their followers took refuge inside the Imperial palace. They achieved this throught the charity of a Christian officer named Castulus who allowed them the use of his rooms. Their days, however, were numbered. Zoë, who had elected to remain in Rome with them, went to pray at the tomb of St. Peter, the first pope. There she was discovered by the Emperor's men and sentenced to death. Her execution was remarkable in its cruelty, she was taken and hung by her ankles over a smoky fire so that she slowly roasted and suffocated to death. Tranquillinus, who also remained, was so impressed by this woman's bravery that he went to pray at the tomb of St. Paul where he was apprehended, later to be executed by stoning. And so, over the next weeks and months, the small band of Christians fell pray to the tortures and executions of the Roman Empire at the height of its persecution. Sebastian's time had to come soon.
Late in the year 286, Sebastian was impeached. Presented to the Emperor by a spy amongst his allies, he was accused of Christianity and sentenced to suffer a slow death by arrows. Calmly resigned to his fate, and assured in his mind that he would be swept up to heaven to be with his Lord, Sebastian was tied to a post. Left there for several hours, he waited for rescue or death. The archers arrived and, for many minutes, shot his body full of arrows before leaving him for dead. Saint Castulus had fallen previously, having been tortured on the rack and buried alive, but his widow, Irene, still survived. Hearing of Sebastian's fate, she went to his place of execution and found to her surprise and joy that by a miracle he had survived. Cutting him down from the post, she took him back to her rooms and, wounded, but in good spirits, Sebastian began to recover.
Desiring to demonstrate the power of his God to Diocletian, Sebastian arranged to be standing on a staircase in the palace as the Emperor passed. Stepping out from the shadows, he admonished the Emperor for his unnecessary cruelty to the Christians. Naturally, Diocletian was somewhat surprised, Sebastian, after all was supposed to have died. However, instead of seeing the light, he ordered a second execution take place, and for the body to be thrown into the sewer. On the January 20, 287 Sebastian was beaten to death, this time not to recover.
Saints, however, are not known for letting a slight inconvenience such as a painful execution get in the way of their work. Unwilling to suffer the indignity of being cast into the sewer, Saint Sebastian (as he now was), appeared in a vision to a woman named Lucina and asked that his body be privately removed and given a decent burial. He was laid to rest in Lucina's garden on the Appian Way, near to the to the caves outside Rome, known to this day as the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian. Later, when it was safe to do so, a church was built over his grave by Pope Saint Damascus in 367.
According to tradition, Pope Eugenius II exhumed his remains in the early nineth century, moving them to Saint Medard's at Soissons where they were placed along side the relics of Saint Gregory the Great. In the sixteenth century as Europe descended into the turmoil of the reformation, the protestant Hugenots sacked the church in 1564 and threw the bones into a water filled ditch. In 1578, relics were recovered, but they were intermixed with Saint Gregory's. Nevertheless, the skull of Saint Sebastian was identified and given to Saint Willibrord by Pope Sergius and later moved to Echternach in Luxembourg where it remains to this day. The locations of the remaining relics are unconfirmed.
Patronage and Representation
Saint Sebastian is officially the patron saint of athletes and of all soldiers, his name having been invoked to inspire victory many times down the years. He is also known as a healing saint; in 680, Rome was hit by a plague and it is said that only when he was prayed to did it relent. Milan and Lisbon both found themselves relieved in similar circumstances in the late sixteenth century. He is also the patron saint of Qormi in Malta.
One of the most popular saints of the Catholic canon, Saint Sebastian has been portrayed many times down the years in a multitude of paintings, the earliest dating from the seventh century. Fascination with his first near-execution has lead most of his images to be that of a young, muscular man, reminiscent of a Greek athlete, tied to a tree or pillar with arrows sticking through his body. His expression is almost always one of serene calm, or even joy, and a halo of holy light often surrounds his head.
Perhaps due to these images, and the rumours surrounding him and the Emperor, Saint Sebastian is also the unofficial patron of homosexuality, male beauty, and sadomasochism. Needless to say, this patronage is not recognised by the Catholic church, but many Catholics derive comfort from his possible representation of their sexuality before God.
Saint Sebastian is one of the more colourful saints, whose unconventional end has lead his story to be told many times down the centuries. Its accuracy cannot of course be verified, but he is nevertheless seen as a beacon of strength to those who find their faith wandering and his feast day, the January 20, is still celebrated by many Catholics today.